America’s second-favorite black man in a dress and a fat suit, Tyler Perry has been nothing if not savvy with his career. He’s the very definition of the infuriatingly omnipresent hyphenated threat who’s consistently tuned into our lowest common denominator. Artists reveal what we didn’t realize we were, but Tyler’s good at creating reflections of what we think we are. Or what we think black folks are, which is how he got to this stage of his career in the first place. Hey, he must know what he’s doing, he makes more money than you.
That’s why Alex Cross is such a shocker. Madea doesn’t pick up a gun and start blasting bad guys in this reboot of the action franchise based on James Patterson’s detective novels, though there is a lovably waspish old lady present, played by Cicely Tyson. If this unwelcome October surprise was just a vehicle to prove that Perry could hold a gun on someone and frown like he was holding murderous rage in check, it would be remarkably successful — but the shocking part is that no one thought to build the rest of the movie around him. Wayne Brady actually did a better job flexing his dramatic muscles on “Chappelle’s Show.”
Oh, if only Alex Cross were a parody of Training Day. Director Rob Cohen (not, it must be noted, the first choice) has a long and even more shameful record of hackery than Perry: The Skulls, xXx, a terrible Mummy sequel. Working with a re-re-written script that bears little relation to the Patterson novels, he creates a cynical homage to every cliché that died out fifteen years ago — the megalomaniacal serial torturer, the evil corporatists with the sinister-sounding foreign accents, the loving family used as revenge fodder, the hotheaded wisecracking sidekick, the chase through the urban hellscape (ostensibly Detroit, substituted largely by Akron and Cleveland, which may give you some idea of the budget). It’s like finding your favorite brawler-style arcade game from 1990, playing it again, and realizing it’s not all that fun.
At least Tyler has a low bar. Cohen, ‘perhaps wisely, doesn’t give him any chances to show the battle going on in his soul, the way it did with Morgan Freeman’s version of the character (Kiss the Girls, Along Came a Spider), it’s impressive that he can bring himself to deliver the dialogue without laughing: “I’m gonna watch your soul come oozing out of your body, you maggot.” “I will meet his soul at the gates of hell before I let him take a person that I love from me.” “I’M your attorney!”
The rest of the cast, sadly, gets wasted like the victims Cross kills to avenge, and not just Tyson. John C. McGinley gets few lines as the gruff but fair Captain, Jean Reno looks somewhat lost as the evil genius, and Matthew Fox, the “Lost” island magic wearing off of him, has to resort to Deniro-esque weight prep and facial tics to portray his no-dimensional killer. (Edward Burns, however, looks like he’s having a ball as the generic sidekick, which may be why he comes off even more annoying than intended.)
Come to think of it, this reboot is a pretty good parody of a dead genre, except, in keeping with Perry’s milieu, one devoid of all humor or insight. It’s just baffling that someone so in touch with the mainstream would agree to such an anachronism; the only contemporary element of Alex Cross is the way it somehow wrangled a PG-13 rating for a flick which paralyzes not one but two women, then snips all their fingers off with shears while they watch in horror. Wonder what an actual sassy black grandma would have to say about that.